Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999
F O R U M 2 0 0 0:
In his speech at this year's Forum 2000 conference, Elie Wiesel described the "noble initiative" of bringing "men and women from many countries, social spheres and intellectual disciplines to try and find some vantage points that could help us and our children enter the new era of hope rather than fear." Wiesel spoke of a need to create a greater sense of responsibility among citizens around the world. The past was filled with pain and suffering at the hands of Stalin and Hitler, for, it was tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin who "actually thought to globalize their terrifying ideas." Up to this point, Wiesel's speech was representative of a benevolent and idealistic view of how the world should be run. It coincided with what one might expect the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to say.
However, two sentences later, Wiesel made a rather disturbing comment. He stated that the answer to the pain caused by tyrants of the past is to "impose a different vision of globalization, a vision of conscience."
What is the difference between Forum 2000 striving to impose its view of globalization on the world and Hitler or Stalin's past attempts to do so?
Plato was one of the first to create a political utopia. In The Republic, he laid out the guidelines for a just society. According to Plato, philosophers were the only ones who had transcended from the "cave" and had broken free of the shackles of greed and self-interest. Since these philosophers were the only ones who were able to see "truth," it was in the best interest of society for these philosophers to become philosopher kings - the noble and virtuous leaders of society. As the guardians of the community, these rulers would, in turn, instill virtue among the public; the state would be run in a "just" manner.
Like Wiesel's first few sentences, Plato's utopia appears, at first, to be an excellent idea. However, after further examination, his perfect society is less than ideal. According to Isiah Berlin, the basic assumptions underlying utopias are defective. First of all, utopias assume that there is, in fact, a "truth"; secondly, that this "truth" can be achieved; and most importantly, that there is only one way to achieve it. What results from these assumptions is a regimented and restricted concept of order, which infringes upon individual rights.
This distortion materializes in Plato's Republic. In order to create the perfect society, the state establishes tyrannical regulations upon the guardians. For example, the state separates the guardians from the rest of the citizens. The state also directly controls their education and cultural development.
Furthermore, the state even regulates the philosopher kings' personal relationships. In a later part of his speech, Wiesel stated: "We are all human beings, and we are all children of the same grandfather." Plato also had this "wonderful" idea of creating one giant family. His way of accomplishing this was for the state to determine who would procreate with whom, to take children away from the parents at birth and to have the community raise the children collectively. So sure, everyone had the "same" grandfather, because no one knew who his or her real grandparents - let alone parents - were.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that Wiesel would support this type of genetic engineering. But the question remains: what measures would be necessary in order to "impose" this global conscience? At what expense and how far should one go to create this utopia?
Furthermore, the notion of imposition implies stifling alternate views. For Berlin, since there is no one "truth," one group cannot attempt to force its conceptions upon another group. To do so would be an act of disregard for other individuals' rights. In George Soros's opening speech at the Forum, he highlighted this importance of not assuming that there is "one" solution; instead, he stressed, the concept of an "open society" must be protected. Citing Karl Popper (the author of the scathing critique of Plato, The Open Society and Its Enemies, which labels Plato a totalitarian), Soros explained open society as:
...the recognition that our understanding of the world in which we live is inherently imperfect. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. Perfection is unattainable. And those designs which seek to provide perfection are actually a threat to the open society.
Soros' statement brings us back to Berlin's idea that one group cannot impose its views on others. There is a fundamental contradiction between respect and infringement. Those who believe that they know "truth" may have good intentions, but good intentions are not the best paving material.
So what is the solution? There is no one solution. One possible approach is through pluralism. In a brief interview with Central Europe Review, Chilean economist Osvaldo Sunkel stated that the Forum should not be thinking in terms of globalization but rather in terms of pluralization. Globalization, according to Sunkel, "conveys the idea of the world being homogenized." Pluralization, in contrast, acknowledges different perspectives and cultures. However, his view is not relativist - a concept which rejects all universalisms and denies the existence of a common value or belief which spans all of humanity. Instead, Sunkel contends that there is a "universal culture." In his view, humans do share common interests of moral, ethical and human values - for example, the defense of human life. Most important to Sunkel's understanding of this moral minimum is that it cannot be imposed on people. For Sunkel, dialogue will bring these fundamental moral values to the surface, but they cannot be forced upon individuals.
This critique of Wiesel's speech is not meant to discredit a fundamental goal of Forum 2000, which is to try to create a new sense of responsibility among today's nations. It is true, as President Havel pointed out, that the political realm needs to be altered. Traditional elements of politics such as greed and selfishness need to be replaced with a sense of responsibility and duty. However, the means by which this transition occurs is critical. "Imposing" this change is contradictory to the basic notion of respecting others.
Heather McDougall, 18 October 1999
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